Christ is represented in the gospel as sustaining to men three classes of relations.

1. Those which are purely governmental.
2. Those which are purely spiritual.
3. Those which unite both these.

We shall at present consider Him as Christ our Justification. I shall show:

What gospel justification is not.

There is scarcely any question in theology that has been encumbered with more injurious and technical mysticism than that of justification.
Justification is the pronouncing of one just. It may be done in words, or, practically, by treatment. Justification must be, in some sense, a governmental act; and it is of importance to a right understanding of gospel justification, to inquire whether it be an act of the judicial, the executive, or the legislative department of government; that is, whether gospel justification consists in a strictly judicial or forensic proceeding, or whether it consists in pardon, or setting aside the execution of an incurred penalty, and is therefore properly either an executive or a legislative act. We shall see that the settling of this question is of great importance in theology; and as we view this subject, so, if consistent, we must view many important and highly practical questions in theology.

This leads me to say:

That gospel justification is not to be regarded as a forensic or judicial proceeding. Dr. Chalmers and those of his school hold that it is. But this is certainly a great mistake, as we shall see. The term forensic is from forum, "a court." A forensic proceeding belongs to the judicial department of government, whose business it is to ascertain the facts and declare the sentence of the law. This department has no power over the law, but to pronounce judgment, in accordance with its true spirit and meaning. Courts never pardon, or set aside the execution of penalties. This does not belong to them, but either to the executive or to the lawmaking department. Oftentimes, this power in human governments is lodged in the head of the executive department, who is, generally at least, a branch of the legislative power of government. But never is the power to pardon exercised by the judicial department. The ground of a judicial or forensic justification invariably is, and must be, universal obedience to law. If but one crime or breach of law is alleged and proved, the court must inevitably condemn, and can in no such case justify, or pronounce the convicted just. Gospel justification is the justification of sinners; it is, therefore, naturally impossible, and a most palpable contradiction, to affirm that the justification of a sinner, or of one who has violated the law, is a forensic or judicial justification. That only is or can be a legal or forensic justification, that proceeds upon the ground of its appearing that the justified person is guiltless, or, in other words, that he has not violated the law, that he has done only what he had a legal right to do. Now it is certainly nonsense to affirm, that a sinner can be pronounced just in the eye of law; that he can be justified by deeds of law, or by the law at all. The law condemns him. But to be justified judicially or forensically, is to be pronounced just in the judgment of law. This certainly is an impossibility in respect to sinners. The Bible is as express as possible on this point. "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).

Romans 3:20
20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. NIV

It is proper to say here, that Dr. Chalmers and those of his school do not intend that sinners are justified by their own obedience to law, but by the perfect and imputed obedience of Jesus Christ. They maintain that, by reason of the obedience to law which Christ rendered when on earth, being set down to the credit of elect sinners, and imputed to them, the law regards them as having rendered perfect obedience in Him, or regards them as having perfectly obeyed by proxy, and therefore pronounces them just, upon condition of faith in Christ. This they insist is properly a forensic or judicial justification. But this subject will come up more appropriately under another head.

What is gospel justification?

It consists not in the law pronouncing the sinner just, but in his being ultimately governmentally treated as if he were just; that is, it consists in a governmental decree of pardon or amnesty in arresting and setting aside the execution of the incurred penalty of law in pardoning and restoring to favor those who have sinned, and those whom the law had pronounced guilty, and upon whom it had passed the sentence of eternal death, and rewarding them as if they had been righteous. In proof of this position, I remark:

1. That this is most unequivocally taught in the Old Testament scriptures. The whole system of sacrifices taught the doctrine of pardon upon the conditions of atonement, repentance, and faith. This, under the old dispensation, is constantly represented as a merciful acceptance of the penitents, and never as a forensic or judicial acquittal or justification of them. The mercy-seat covered the law in the ark of the covenant. Paul informs us what justification was in the sense in which the Old Testament saints understood it, in: "Even also as David describeth the blessedness of the man to whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (Romans 4:6-8). This quotation from David shows both what David and what Paul understood by justification, to wit, the pardon and acceptance of the penitent sinner.

Romans 4:6-8

6 Thus David congratulates the man and pronounces a blessing on him to whom God credits righteousness apart from the works he does:
7 Blessed and happy and to be envied are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered up and completely buried.
8 Blessed and happy and to be envied is the person of whose sin the Lord will take no account nor reckon it against him. [Psalms 32:1,2.]

2. The New Testament fully justifies and establishes this view of the subject, as we shall abundantly see under another head.

3. Sinners cannot possibly be just in any other sense. Upon certain conditions they may be pardoned and treated as just. But for sinners to be forensically pronounced just, is impossible and absurd.

Conditions of justification

In this discussion I use the term condition in the sense of a sine qua non, a "not without which." This is its philosophical sense. A condition as distinct from, a ground of justification, is anything without which sinners cannot be justified, which, nevertheless, is not the procuring cause or fundamental reason of their justification. As we shall see, there are many conditions, while there is but one ground, of the justification of sinners. The application and importance of this distinction we shall perceive as we proceed.

As has been already said, there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law. This is of course denied by those who hold that gospel justification, or the justification of penitent sinners, is of the nature of a forensic or judicial justification. They hold to the legal maxim, that what a man does by another he does by himself, and therefore the law regards Christ's obedience as ours, on the ground that

He obeyed for us. To this I reply:

1. The legal maxim just repeated does not apply, except in cases where one acts in behalf of another by his own appointment, which was not the case with the obedience of Christ; and:

2. The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption; to wit, that Christ owed no obedience to the law in His own person, and that therefore His obedience was altogether a work of supererogation, and might be made a substitute for our own obedience; that it might be set down to our credit, because He did not need to obey for Himself.

I must here remark, that justification respects the moral law; and that it must be intended that Christ owed no obedience to the moral law, and therefore His obedience to this law, being wholly a work of supererogation, is set down to our account as the ground of our justification upon condition of faith in Him. But surely this is an obvious mistake. We have seen, that the spirit of the moral law requires good will to God and the universe. Was Christ under no obligation to do this? Nay, was He not rather under infinite obligation to be perfectly benevolent? Was it possible for Him to be more benevolent than the law requires God and all beings to be? Did He not owe entire consecration of heart and life to the highest good of universal being? If not, then benevolence in Him were no virtue, for it would not be a compliance with moral obligation. It was naturally impossible for Him, and is naturally impossible for any being, to perform a work of supererogation, that is, to be more benevolent than the moral law requires Him to be. This is and must be as true of God as it is of any other being. Would not Christ have sinned had He not been perfectly benevolent? If He would, it follows that He owed obedience to the law, as really as any other being. Indeed, a being that owed no obedience to the moral law must be wholly incapable of virtue, for what is virtue but obedience to the moral law?

But if Christ owed personal obedience to the moral law, then His obedience could no more than justify Himself. It can never be imputed to us. He was bound for Himself to love God with all His heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and His neighbor as Himself. He did no more than this. He could do no more. It was naturally impossible, then, for Him to obey in our behalf.

There are, however, valid grounds and valid conditions of justification.

l. The vicarious suffering or atonement of Christ is a condition of justification, or of the pardon and acceptance of penitent sinners. It has been common either to confound the conditions with the ground of justification, or purposely to represent the atonement and work of Christ as the ground, as distinct from and opposed to a condition of justification. In treating this subject, I find it important to distinguish between the ground and conditions of justification and to regard the atonement and work of Christ not as a ground, but only as a condition of gospel justification. By the ground I mean the moving, procuring cause; that in which the plan of redemption originated as its source, and which was the fundamental reason or ground of the whole movement. This was the benevolence and merciful disposition of the whole Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This love made the atonement, but the atonement did not beget this love. The Godhead desired to save sinners, but could not safely do so without danger to the universe, unless something was done to satisfy public, not retributive justice. The atonement was resorted to as a means of reconciling forgiveness with the wholesome administration of Justice. A merciful disposition in the Godhead was the source, ground, mainspring, of the whole movement, while the atonement was only a condition or means, or that without which the love of God could not safely manifest itself in justifying and saving sinners.

Failing to make this distinction, and representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner's justification, has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many. Indeed, the whole questions of the nature, design, extent, and bearings of the atonement turn upon, and are involved in, this distinction. Some represent the atonement as not demanded by, nor as proceeding from the love or merciful disposition, but from the inexorable wrath of the Father, leaving the impression that Christ was more merciful, and more the friend of sinners than the Father. Many have received this impression from pulpit and written representations, as I well know.

Others, regarding the atonement as the ground as opposed to a condition of justification, have held the atonement to be the literal payment of the debt of sinners, and of the nature of a commercial transaction: a quid pro quo, a valuable consideration paid down by Christ, by suffering the same amount as was deserved by the whole number of the elect; thus negativing the idea of a merciful disposition in the Father, and representing Him as demanding pay for discharging and saving sinners. Some of this class have held, that since Christ has died, the elect sinner has a right to demand his justification, on the ground of justice, that he may present the atonement and work of Christ, and say to the Father, "Here is the price; I demand the commodity." This class, of course, must hold to the limited nature of the atonement, or be universalists.

While others again, assuming that the atonement was the ground of justification in the sense of the literal payment of the debt of sinners, and that the scriptures represent the atonement as made for all men, have very consistently become universalists. Others again have given up, or never held the view that the atonement was of the nature of the literal payment of a debt, and hold that it was a governmental expedient to reconcile the pardon of sin with a wholesome administration of justice: that it was sufficient for all as for a part of mankind: that it does not entitle those for whom it was made to a pardon on the score of justice, but that men are justified freely by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and yet they inconsistently persist in representing the atonement as the ground, and not merely as a condition of justification.

Those who hold that the atonement and obedience of Christ were and are the ground of the justification of sinners, in the sense of the payment of their debt, regard all the grace in the transaction as consisting in the atonement and obedience of Christ, and exclude grace from the act of justification. Justification they regard as a forensic act. I regard the atonement of Christ as the necessary condition of safely manifesting the benevolence of God in the justification and salvation of sinners. A merciful disposition in the whole Godhead was the ground, and the atonement a condition of justification. Mercy would have saved without an atonement, had it been possible to do so.

That Christ's sufferings, and especially His death, were vicarious, has been abundantly shown in treating the subject of atonement. I need not repeat here what I said there. Although Christ owed perfect obedience to the moral law for Himself, and could not therefore obey as our substitute, yet since He perfectly obeyed, He owed no suffering to the law or to the Divine government on His own account. He could therefore suffer for us. That is, He could, to answer governmental purposes, substitute His death for the infliction of the penalty of the law on us. He could not perform works of supererogation, but He could endure sufferings of supererogation, in the sense that He did not owe them for Himself. The doctrine of substitution, in the sense just named, appears everywhere in both Testaments. It is the leading idea, the prominent thought, lying upon the face of the whole scriptures. Let the few passages that follow serve as specimens of the class that teach this doctrine:

"For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar, to make all atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Leviticus 17:11).

Leviticus 17:11

11 For the life (the animal soul) is in the blood, and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life [which it represents]. [Romans 3:24-26.] AMP